François Mouillot graduated with a PhD in Communication Studies in 2018. His dissertation looked at the role of small record labels in the musical, linguistic and commercial evolutions of the Montreal experimental music scene between the 1990’s and the 2010’s. He is currently a Research Assistant Professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD in the first place?
When I was finishing up my MA, I realized that I enjoyed teaching at the university level. At that point, it became clear to me that I was not going to get a stable teaching position in a university without having a PhD. Over the course of my undergraduate and masters degrees, I had also developed a strong interest in researching music (particularly in relation to its social and political dimensions), but I think what got me thinking about doing a PhD was, initially at least, the perspective of becoming a university teacher.
Q: How did you come to figure out that you were interested in teaching?
It was a combination of experiences. I did some teaching during my MA, and I liked that. Prior to that, I had a job as a French language teacher in Guelph, Ontario where I did my undergraduate and MA degrees. Through those jobs, I realized that I enjoyed teaching, so that was the path. Over the course of my first two university degrees, I also received a lot of encouragement and positive feedback from mentors at the university about my research work. Simply put, they told me that I had what it took to do a PhD. So the love of teaching plus that encouragement led me to apply for a PhD.
Q: Did your views on teaching and research change at all once you finished the PhD?
Yeah, they definitely evolved. By the end of the PhD, I realized that I cared at least as much about doing research as I did about teaching, which is what led me on this academic job path. Prior to the PhD, I was really focused on teaching, but by the end of the PhD, I was also interested in pursuing research in the longer term.
Q: What is your current position now?
My current position is Research Assistant Professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. It’s a faculty position, but slightly different from an assistant professor position in that the teaching, administrative and service loads are somewhat reduced, but there is a premium on getting pursuing different research projects (and getting funding for them), and publishing.
Q: What was your path after graduation?
When I finished my PhD, I was in that stressful-yet-common position of having to look for a job. I did not secure a post-doc or faculty position before I graduated, which would have greatly reduced the stress of not knowing what I would do next. Over the course of my PhD, I had come to Hong Kong several times for short term research contracts at a different university from where I am now. I discovered I liked the city, and I met my current partner at that time. After I finished at McGill, it sort of felt like a natural thing for me to just move to Hong Kong—I felt like I had nothing left to do in Montreal. As you know, doing a PhD is belonging to a very kind of transient and loose community. So I felt like a lot of my friends had moved on from McGill and from Montreal, and my family was in France. So I just relocated to Hong Kong. From here, I heard that another university in Hong Kong was opening up different positions that were a good fit for me. I applied, and fortunately, I got the job shortly after that.
Q: Did you ever consider any type of nonacademic career?
As a backup. I gave myself a year or two to apply for academic jobs before really considering moving away from academia. This was partly because after a certain number of years, I realized that you become less competitive if you haven’t secured any kind of academic job in that time. So I really treated academia as my primary goal directly after I graduated from McGill. I made it my job to apply for academic positions.
Q: What kind of financial support did you receive?
I was accepted to do the PhD when my department was only offering one-year packages to their students. Then towards the end of my first year, there was a shift in that moving forward, the department was going to be offering two year packages, but they offered it to my cohort retroactively as well. So I ended up benefiting from this two-year funding package. The program provided this for us with the expectation that we would secure some sort of external funding for the rest of your degree. But as an international student, I was never eligible for government funding, so I relied on departmental RAships and TAships. I was also able to get temporary positions in Hong Kong, where I would essentially flee Montreal in the winter and come here for four and five months, make a bit of money, and then go back and do TAships. That’s the reason why I started to come to Hong Kong.
Q: Was there any kind of mentorship that you wish you had before you started the degree?
I wish I had a better understanding of the different paths and possibilities I could pursue after the PhD, and what the actual job market looks like after graduation. I think more professionalizing workshops while I was at McGill would have been really good. I got amazing research mentorship from my supervisors, but I did not get as much from the university in relation to how to apply for jobs, how to put together applications, and how to market myself, which are extremely important skills to develop for people trying to get on the academic job market afterwards. I think it’s a common thing across many universities in the world—it’s very rare that departments or professors actually provide training for these skills.
Q: What would you say that you value most about your time in graduate school?
In the most basic sense, I think the time and space to think about things that I was interested in and to pursue research in a very broad kind of sense. I felt that doing a PhD, and even a Masters degree, was a very privileged kind of moment in my life where I was essentially being paid—if not greatly, but still paid—to actually think and write and talk about what I was really passionate about. I also valued the opportunity to teach students—I felt that those were really amazing and formative experiences for me.
Q: What were the biggest challenges for you after you graduated?
Because I had set myself the goal of trying to get an academic job, the biggest challenge was to overcome that moment of fear and anxiety of “Will I get a job?”. I consider myself to be very lucky—I didn’t have to look very long. I knew of many other people who applied for jobs for years before they actually got something interesting.
Q: What advice would you give someone working on their PhD?
My advice would be to work at their own pace and to try to avoid comparing their progress or lack of progress to their peers. A PhD in the humanities is a highly personal kind of pursuit, and we all move through it very differently and at different paces. I also think it’s important to get a solid group of friends outside of academia for sanity and for a reality check because academia is a bubble that can really swallow you. You can easily forget that there’s a world of other concerns and other ways of doing things. For them to ask about my research and having to explain that to a “lay person” is always a good process for me to get a bit of perspective on what I was doing.
Many thanks to François for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find him at https://interdisciplinary-research.hkbu.edu.hk/people/francois-mouillot.
This interview took place in July 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.